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Heidi Morrison and Reflections on the Universality of Finding Meaning in Death

Reflections on the Universality of Finding Meaning in Death

When asked to blog about my JHCY article, I considered various topics. Should I write about the inordinate difficulty it takes to conduct research on Palestine, due to Israeli airport and checkpoint security that seek to keep a lid on what is happening in the occupied territories? Should I write about how some of the oral history training that I received at Columbia’s Oral History Summer Institute did not always correspond to the reality of doing fieldwork? Should I provide a basic primer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since this topic remains elusive to so many people despite its central place in shaping the world we live in today? Should I write about the delicate job of being a researcher who asks a mother to relive the worst tragedy of her life: the death of a child? All of these aforementioned topics are compelling, but the topic I have chosen to blog about is more personal.

Death is an emotionally resonate topic that no one can escape dealing with at some point in his/her life. What the mothers in my research showed me is that dealing with death often means finding meaning in death.

The mothers I interviewed who lost their children to Israeli violence memorialize their son’s death as beautiful and an act of strength. They do this for a reason. Many westerners misinterpret that reason to be that Palestinians embrace a culture of violence. However, the real reason is grounded in the historical and contemporary context of living under occupation, the details of which are explored in my JHCY article.

The mothers I interviewed are no different than you or me in their objective to make some sense of death. Whether our explanation be religious, scientific, or cultural we all look for answers to the pain caused by the loss of human life.  I am no different than a Palestinian mother in this universal quest, as the following narrative seeks to explain. I title the narrative “A Miscarriage, a Revolution, and a Pekingese: Finding Meaning in Death.” I would greatly enjoy hearing from readers about your experiences with searching for meaning in death. As the tale will tell, my solace in death came from perceiving death as an impetus for life. The hope in sharing my personal story is threefold: to honor the bravery of the mothers who confided in me; to show our common humanity; and to make discussions of death less taboo. Here is my story:

A nine-week old human fetus fits in a plastic cup. I know this from experience. Under a bridge of a congested street near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, my husband reached for anything he could to place the contents of my sudden miscarriage. I lost the life that was growing inside me at the center of where the 2011 Egyptian Revolution’s hope for democracy had both came alive and died a few years prior.

The symbolism in location accentuated my need to find meaning in the pregnancy’s premature ending. Just as many Egyptian activists living under renewed military dictatorship grappled to believe the Revolution was not in vain, I too grappled to believe the much desired, yet short-lived, gestation had a purpose.

Almost as soon as I left the hospital, my thoughts turned to a German Shepherd dog named March that I had met the previous week at an Egyptian animal shelter. Named after the month in which she was found dying in the streets of Alexandria, March recovered at the dog shelter from an unexplained, deep, and foot-long stab wound across her back. Her leg muscles were atrophied from lack of adequate exercise at the overcrowded shelter.

I adopted March as a surrogate to the baby I had just lost and as a way to give life. A few days later, March flew home with me to Los Angeles.  When I cried, March nestled her big body into my lap, as if to say she knew my pain. To my dismay, her empathy quickly turned into irrational protection, attacking anybody who came near me. One horrific night, March pinned a family member against the wall, teeth snarling. I began putting a muzzle on March and hoped that with time she would recover from her own abusive past and settle down.

Unfortunately, the situation deteriorated to the point that I had to rehome March with an experienced German Shepherd trainer. The day I left March with Nixon, she howled as I walked away. She was a child losing her mother. I heaved with sorrow too. I was a mother losing her second child. My only solace came from knowing that Nixon, arms scarred with years of dog bites, would never give up on March.

Although tears still readily swelled in my eyes, work obligations pulled me abroad again for research. In Palestine as a Fulbright scholar, the loss continued to haunt me and leave me yearning for a beginning to come from the tragic end. Volunteering in a Jerusalem animal shelter, I met a small Pekingese dog that needed a caretaker as much as I needed a dependent. His original owners left him starving and infested with maggots in an Israeli militarized zone, a sort of no-man’s land arguably inhospitable to any life at all.

I took the Pekingese dog home and gave him the name Zeitoon, Arabic for Olive, because of his big, round black eyes. Just as the olive tree represents the Palestinians’ struggle to stay rooted in their land, my Zeitoon held fast onto life in the face of death. Over the coming months, I carted Zeitoon back and forth across checkpoints to get him the necessary medical care. In the process, I became a sort of Coyote, transporting Palestinians’ animals into Israel for medical treatment they could not receive in Palestine and for which their owners were not allowed entry.  Children in my apartment building fell in love with Zeitoon, often passing by to ask if he could come out and play. Zeitoon allowed a young Palestinian named Muna to materialize her ambition to start the first ever dog-walking business in Palestine.

On many occasions, I hugged Zeitoon tight and thanked him for abounding with life. Similar to March, he responded by empathetically pushing his head into my neck. Also similar to March, he took his compassion too far. A few months after making a full recovery, Zeitoon suddenly lost the ability to walk with any of his legs.  He became so weak that I had to hand feed him with a little spoon, dress him in diapers, and use a syringe as a bottle for hydration. He literally became my baby. I even had to push him around in my rolling grocery basket.

Despite consultations with canine neurologists, twice-weekly physical therapy on a water treadmill, and multiple medications, Olive remained completely dependent upon me for mobility. I soon learned the meaning of his different cries.

It was not until almost one year after the start of Zeitoon’s paralysis and when I finally gave birth to a human baby, that Zeitoon for no apparent medical reason suddenly began to use his legs again.  Although wobbly and not with great stamina, Zeitoon is on the path to regaining some of his independence.

With a baby of my own now, I wonder if Zeitoon understands I no longer need him to assume that role. I also wonder if Zeitoon, like March, used his own painful life experience as reason to help me. Finding meaning in tragedy and disappointment is itself a revolution.

About the Author

Heidi Morrison is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She is the author of The Global History of Childhood Reader (Routledge, 2012) and Childhood and Colonial Modernity in Egypt (Palgrave, 2015). Her writing has appeared in Le Monde DiplomatiqueCounter Punch, and Mondoweiss.  An earlier version of this piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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